Realising Justice for Sex Workers: An Agenda for Change

Realising Justice for Sex Workers: An Agenda for Change


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Realising Justice for Sex Workers: An Agenda for Change by Sharron A. FitzGerald

In the past two decades, feminist politics on prostitution has become more polarised and ideological. On the one hand, those on the radical spectrum of feminist politics have fought long and hard to criminalise sex purchase with the intention of ultimately abolishing prostitution. Other feminists have lobbied the state to recognise and institutionalise sex workers' human rights.

The collection is both a critical intervention in and a re-orientation of the schism in contemporary feminist prostitution politics. Contributors will use this schism as a platform from which to challenge current debates, and 'think' an alternative sex worker-centred politics for social justice. By placing sex workers' lived experiences of prostitution at the centre of the conversation, the book rejects the hegemony of neo-abolitionism as the solution to the 'problem' of sex work.

The book brings international, trans-disciplinary scholars together to address a rights-based agenda for sex work law and policy and consequently for sex workers' lives. This collection offers an invaluable resource on the subject of how sex workers experience injustices and how we can mitigate this globally through a transformative vision of social justice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786603951
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/16/2018
Series: Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality Series
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.95(h) x 0.65(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sharron A. FitzGerald teaches in gender and migration studies at Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, Germany.

Kathryn McGarry is a lecturer in Social Policy in the Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University.

Read an Excerpt


Racism, Xenophobia and Hegemonic Masculinity

The Nordic Model of Criminalising the Purchase of Sex

Jay Levy

Almost twenty years ago, in 1999, Sweden criminalised the purchase of sex with the sexköpslagen, or 'sex purchase law', in an attempt to abolish sex work. Since Sweden introduced this law, the legislation has been influential globally (Levy 2015). It would be no understatement to write that in any political or academic discussion vis-à-vis sex work legislation, politicians, governments, service and health-care providers, NGO workers and spokespeople, rights organisations, and sex worker rights organisations alike invoke (in positive or negative light) what has come to be referred to as 'the Swedish model' on prostitution.

The law is a bad law, even by its own metrics and standards, but principally in terms of social (in)justice. Failing in its principal ambition — it has not decreased levels of sex work — it has also driven substantive harm and has exacerbated difficulties and injustices for sex workers in Sweden (Levy 2015; Östergren 2004; Östergren and Dodillet 2011).

Yet the law and the discourses that have justified it remain influential. Recently, France, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Iceland have followed Sweden in criminalising sex purchase. Similarly, Norway in 2009 introduced its own sex purchase law (the sexkjøpsloven), following in the footsteps of their Scandinavian neighbours.

Sweden and Norway are often perceived internationally as bastions of social justice. Globally they enjoy a reputation as states that champion marginalised citizens' rights and as successful models of social democratic welfare states committed to full employment, high standards of health care and education, and social inclusion for all. I argue here that the Swedish and Norwegian models on sex work have driven (and been informed by) just those very injustices Sweden and Norway are (incorrectly) perceived as opposing (Levy 2015, 2018; Kulick 2003; Pred 2000).

Norway and Sweden's reasons for criminalising sex purchase are the focus of this chapter. I discuss their justifications — that is, the apparent social injustices that needed to be tackled — for passing this legislation. Sweden focussed on issues surrounding gender equality and constructions of sex work as a form of violence against women. Norway focussed instead on human trafficking and migration, both constructed as social ills necessitating fundamental legislative and societal change.

I will also discuss the moral panics that were of broader relevance in catalysing the introduction of the legislation: concerns were focussed on marginalised, vulnerable communities who were (and are) perceived to pose a risk to (never perceived to be at risk from) normative society and normative social order (as I discuss below). I argue that though the overt justifications for Norway and Sweden to criminalise the purchase of sex were divergent, the moral panics that formed a backdrop to these justifications have a lot in common: these are moral panics pertaining to groups, practices, and ideas constructed as being deviant, dangerous, other, and — importantly — foreign to the fragile heteronormative (and white) Scandinavian nation states of Northern Europe (Levy 2015; Kulick 2003). I stress that the criminalisation of sex purchase, as with other laws and policies focussing on marginalised and socially excluded communities and practices historically, serves as a lens through which to focus and concentrate popular concerns as broad and specific social fears. I argue the resultant controls on marginalised communities are at odds with the pursuits for social justice, equality, and social inclusion so often assumed to be synonymous with Nordic states of Sweden and Norway. The reasons and fears that galvanised the introduction of this legislation must be understood if we are to truly grasp not only outcomes of such legislation but also the contexts which lead to its introduction.


In this chapter, I draw not only on secondary literature and material but also on data from my doctoral research and fieldwork undertaken in Sweden and Norway between 2008 and 2012. My objectives were to ascertain the outcomes of the criminalisation of sex purchase and to explore the motivations and discourses justifying the adoption of said legislation. I wished to establish the impacts of this legislation on sex workers' lived realities, experiences, and perceptions, and the views and policies of service and health-care providers and those responsible for enforcing the law. I interviewed ninety respondents, including sex workers, politicians, service and health-care providers (particularly social workers working with Sweden's 'Prostitution Units'), police, and activists and lobby and rights organisations. I sampled respondents using a mixed-methods approach of targeted sampling, opportunistic sampling, key informant sampling, and snowball sampling. Interviews were qualitative and semistructured, and following transcription they were coded and analysed using a thematic content analysis (Glaser and Strauss 1967). This allowed for an inductive process to emerge to structure and frame my work (Levy 2015, 2018; Levy and Jakobsson 2013).

Methodological approaches for research on, with, by, and for marginalised, criminalised, and socially excluded communities are strengthened by their careful consideration of ethics, safety, positionality, participatory focus, and multi-method triangulation approaches. I endeavoured to position my respondents as active experts on their own lives, lived realities, views, and experiences. Research of this sort can be severely undermined by poor, selective, biased approaches, sampling, and frameworks of analysis (for a fuller account of my methods, see Levy 2015, 2018).

As I have noted, my fieldwork focussed also on the discourses that justified the law. In this chapter, I deal with these stated justifications for the legislation, justifications aligned with Sweden's and Norway's famous pursuit of equal, progressive, and socially just welfare states. Below I deal with why these issues came to the fore in the first place, why this legislative change was not really focused on sex workers' rights, health, safety, social inclusion, and well-being, but rather on advancing particular discourses and visions. I argue that these justifications are not well aligned with the image of a socially just Scandinavia after all!


The facets of the discursive backdrop of Sweden's sex purchase law are multitudinous (see Clausen 2007; Danna 2012; Ekberg 2004; Florin 2012; Leander 2005; Levy 2015). The principal influence on the sex purchase law was radical feminist (variously termed abolitionist feminist, second-wave feminist, abolitionist radical feminist) discourse. This narrative constructs sex work (invariably termed in this discourse as the more stigmatising 'prostitution') as a form of gendered violence against women perpetrated by men (with all sex workers who are not cisgender2 female sex workers, and all clients of sex workers who are not cisgender men, neatly invisiblised accordingly) (for example, see Dworkin 1992; Jeffreys 1997; MacKinnon 1987). Sex work is constructed as a type of violence in and of itself, and it is argued that violence and exploitation are additionally (and immutably) associated with sex work (Farley 2006; Jeffreys 1997; Raymond 1998). These are two levels of violence that are claimed to be inherent and unchangeable (Levy 2015; Weitzer 2005).

This discourse was the principal influence on the debates in Sweden prior to the 1999 sexköpslagen. Organisations such as separatist radical feminist organisation ROKS and the international radical feminist organisation CATW were particular proponents advocating these understandings, as the following quotations demonstrate, with politicians and stakeholders connected to the Swedish radical feminist shelter movement advocating similarly (Gould 2001; Levy 2015; Svanström 2004, 2006).

We are talking about these issues as a type of men's violence against women. ... I don't think it's a work, I mean it's a, we, in my quarters, you say that women are prostituted by men, and I don't think that prostitution is something that you choose. And if you can't choose, it couldn't be work. (Interview, Founder of ROKS Women's Shelter)

Had they not been influenced by this very aggressive person within the central government, who was actually running a campaign for a nongovernmental organisation, CATW, from within the government offices of Sweden ... The connections between CATW and the Swedish government, specially in this period of time, I think need to be much better investigated. ... And ROKS has been extremely influential on the Swedish governmental [processes]. (Interview, Senior Advisor Regarding Prostitution, Socialstyrelsen)

Sweden responded to the mainstreaming of this discourse that constructed sex work as a form of violence and exploitation against women by criminalising the apparent perpetrators of this structural violence — people who buy sex. Conversely, it constructed those who sell sex as disempowered victims in need of protection. Those who supported the law were careful to stress that sex workers were not criminalised, but protected from criminalisation. This argument is a very simplistic one of supply and demand. Similar to arguments which support drug prohibition and criminalisation of people who use drugs: criminalise demand, and you will end supply. 'If there were no demand, there would be no people selling sex. As simple as that' (Interview, Stockholm Prostitution Unit Social Worker). What many proponents of the sex purchase law — in Sweden and overseas — seem to forget is that this radical feminist construction of sex work as a form of violence is actually an understanding of sex work as one of the — not the only — pressing and pertinent forms of violence that exist as a result of heteronormative sex that takes place within a context of patriarchal subjugation of women by men. This radical feminist discourse emphasises that all heteronormative intercourse is a form of oppression, and prostitution is the most reviled facet of this violent gender-based exploitation and domination (Dworkin 1987; Jeffreys 1997; MacKinnon 1987). As noted pertinently by O'Connell Davidson, 'for those radical feminists who hold all heterosexual intercourse to be an expression of patriarchal power ... prostitution is perhaps the purest expression of male domination' (1995, 1).

Sweden bought piecemeal into this understanding of sex work as a form of gendered violence, a type of violence to be abolished through targeting the perpetrators of this violence — people who buy sex — without buying into a broader narrative that constructs all heteronormative sex as exploitation and violence, the very same broader narrative from which the discourse regarding sex work is lifted. This sounds alarm bells in terms of the true motivation for selectively cherry-picking from this radical feminist discourse. The social justice sought — ostensibly through adopting a law to tackle something constructed by extreme radical feminist discourse as violence against women — was an arbitrary and selective justice. If gender equality, addressing violence against women and responding to marginalised communities, were really the ambition, then lawmakers would not have arbitrarily selected from the discourse justifying the law. This broader radical feminist narrative was not voiced during the political debates prior to 1999 and the criminalisation of sex purchase. As one respondent I interviewed during fieldwork in Sweden noted, far from broad concerns about social justice, gender equality and defending the rights and promoting the health and well-being of sex workers, radical feminism was but a 'framework' for opposing prostitution in Sweden:

Opposition to prostitution as a social problem goes way back [in Sweden], and so radical feminism is today only a framework for opposition against prostitution, I mean it has provided a framework for this opposition, so many people share the analysis provided by radical feminism, but I mean, these people, all those who stand by sex purchase law, of course if you talk to them about power structures, ideas of sexuality and power and the relationship between men and women, individuals and groups in society at large, they would definitely reject radical feminism, and I mean there have been other parallel debates on radical feminism in connection to domestic violence, for instance, where you had public outrage against these crazy ideas emerging from the women's shelter movement etcetera, by people who do not see that the very same analysis is being, is underpinning the sex purchase law. (Interview, Senior Advisor Regarding Prostitution, Socialstyrelsen)

Importantly, the criminalisation of sex purchase is justified by a conveniently selective (mis)interpretation of radical feminist discourse in order to provide an excusatory 'framework' for opposing, controlling, and containing sex work in Sweden. I discuss this in more detail below.

Sex work being constructed as a form of violence against women was the overt justification for the criminalisation of sex purchase. In not so many words, it was also the overt justification for social justice for vulnerable, marginalised women. At the point of the law's introduction, one pressing issue was Sweden's history of gendered and domestic violence perpetrated by men against women. This was the source of considerable political embarrassment in the context of Sweden's aspiration — ever since the 1960s — to achieve full gender equality (Danna 2012; Florin 2012; Harrington 2012; O'Connor and Healy 2006; Östergren and Dodillet 2011; Svanström 2004). Sweden was seen to have historically ignored and trivialised these issues (Elman 2001; Gould 2001; Harrington 2012), with 'a reluctance among politicians and policy analysts to examine gender inequality and/or the welfare state through the prism of sexualized subordination and violence against women' (Elman 2001, 39). It was this historical social injustice in Swedish society, in part, which led to this focus on discussions and discourses of prostitution as a form of violence against women. But what was the broader context in which these discourses came to the fore? Where sex purchase criminalisation was obviously in response to discourses surrounding gendered violence and gender (in) equality and social injustices experienced by women in Swedish society, for this radical feminist narrative to come to dominate the debate in Sweden prior to the law's introduction in 1999, proponents had to set the stage with several moral panics serving collectively to galvanise a broader social sense of anxiety.


Far from the sex purchase law in Sweden being informed only by aspirations of equality and social justice, racialised panic surrounding migration featured heavily in media discussions and political debates prior to the sexköpslagen's introduction. This panic was tied in to concerns through the 1980s and 1990s about HIV/AIDS. Sweden's response to the pandemic diverged from other industrialised democracies who took the opportunity to develop 'cooperation and inclusion' responses to HIV (Henriksson and Ytterberg 1992; Kirp and Bayer 1992), promoting a sense of shared and collective responsibility for prevention and treatment initiatives and interventions. Sweden, by contrast, continues what may be considered to be a long and dark history of social control and injustice via the 'containment and control' of marginalised communities to control venereal and contagious disease. For example, those who were infected with HIV were (and are) controlled by operationalising historical venereal disease legislation, used to curtail the freedoms and movements of people living with HIV in Sweden (Henriksson and Ytterberg 1992; Kirp and Bayer 1992; Danziger 1999; Vallgårda 2007). These strict measures are at odds with a nation frequently (mis)cast as prioritising social justice for all, including its most marginalised citizens. Sweden's HIV response has allowed for medicalised (and, in theory, indefinite) incarceration of those who do not comply with Swedish communicable disease legislation, such as disclosure of HIV status to all sexual partners and compliance with contact tracing (Henriksson and Ytterberg 1992).


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Copyright © 2018 Sharron A. FitzGerald and Kathryn McGarry.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Foreword, Kate McGrew / Social Justice through an Agenda for Change: An Introduction, Kathryn McGarry and Sharron A. FitzGerald / 1. Racism, Xenophobia and Hegemonic Masculinity: The Nordic Model of Criminalising the Purchase of Sex, Jay Levy / 2. The Impact of Criminalisation on Indoor Sex Workers in England and Wales and the Need for Legislative Change, Billie Lister / 3. Feminists, Step Back! (Re)centring and Supporting Sex Workers’ Political Projects, Samantha Majic / 4. Selling Sex: What Influences or Displaces Perceptions of Agency?, Jane Dodsworth / 5. Universities as Spaces of Sexual Diversity: Students Engaged in Sex Work in Amsterdam, Marie-Louise Janssen / 6. Examining and Challenging the Everyday Power Relations Affecting Sex Workers’ Health / Pippa Grenfell, Lucy Platt and Luca Stevenson / 7. Decriminalisation and Social Justice: A Public Health Perspective on Sex Work, Gillian Abel / 8. Turning Perspectives on Migrant Sex Workers Inside Out: From the Current Criminalisation and Victimisation to the Need of Rights and Legalisation, Alexandra Oliveira / 9. Sex Worker Rights, Recognition and Resistance: Towards a ‘Real Politics of Justice’, Maggie O’Neill and Mary Laing / 10. Into the Light: A Model of Justice for Workers’ Rights in the Shadow and Gig Economy, Belinda Brooks Gordon / 11. Reconceptualising On-Street Sex Work as a Complex Affective Social Assemblage, Anna Carline and Jamie Murray / Notes on Contributors / Index

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